Fiction: Of Lords Part II (1282 words)

It took an hour to listen to the rest of the cases. The line slowly shortened, and the pile of chains grew until the last of the men and women had been sent back out of the hall. Two of the guards stooped to collect the pile, hefting them over their shoulders as if the mass of them were too heavy to carry any other way. Terius watched and tried not to imagine the weight of a single pair of shackles.

The guards left and the scribe finished packing up her box of pens. Bowing to Lord Ryden, she left without a word, and the room slowly cleared after her. Terius should have stepped down from his place behind the high seat, and moved with them, but he hesitated.

Then he rolled his hands into fists. There was no point in standing there. He desperately needed to move, to run, or hit something very hard. In an instant, it felt very wrong to hold still. Even shaking would have suited, thought he felt steady as stone.

He stepped down immediately, hitting the main floor of the hall in one long stride.

“You don’t have anything you want to say to me?” his father asked behind him.

Terius stopped, but didn’t turn. He looked over his shoulder at Lord Ryden. “No,” he said quickly.

“Maybe ‘want’ is the wrong word,” Ryden said. Letting out a heavy breath, he leaned back in his chair.

Terius stared at him. All the courteous kindness his father had employed a moment before was gone. All the diplomatic vacancy that he usually took on in a tense room was nowhere to be seen. His tone had been sharp.

Terius wondered if his father wanted him to stay angry. He turned back to face him carefully.

“Don’t make me blame you,” Terius murmured.

“I think you’re going to blame me either way,” Ryden told him. “Eventually.”

Terius meant to disagree. Instead he stayed silent.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Ryden said. As usual, it was not a command given with any thought that it would be ignored.

Terius paused. He hadn’t put his thoughts into anything so confined as words. They were just a twisted something that compelled him to leave, and tightened the fit of his bones. He considered, for an instant, how good it would feel to stride through the doors and listen to the echo of the doors clapping shut behind him…

But the silence outside the hall would feel wrong.

“Jaera,” he murmured instead.

Leaning forward, Ryden rested his elbows on his knees. He watched Terius, wordlessly inviting him to continue. Terius didn’t like that silence either. He balled one hand into a fist again, rubbed his thumb over his knuckles.

“You know her,” Terius said. “You’ve known since she was six, and she stood here in this hall and the best you could do for her was to recognize the time she’s already been held as part of her punishment. That’s the smallest sort of kindness.”

Ryden didn’t blink. “She was here for the same reason all the others were. She broke the law.”

“She walked down a street.”

“She walked where she knew didn’t belong,” Ryden corrected him. His tone was quieting now, but he held its steady edge. “She was in the Court of Lords, where all our laws are decided, where any man or woman in the city can come and speak their piece and the Lords must hear them out. We keep the Clanless out for good reason. They lost the right to wear our symbols and so they lost all right to influence.”

“Jaera is a foundling, not a criminal,” Terius reminded him.

“That’s true.” Ryden ducked his head in a shallow nod, and otherwise remained unmoved. “But there’s no exception written for foundlings.”

“But you’re allowed to play with the rules of confinement?” Terius demanded.

“There is nothing explicitly stated about how the hold before judgement must be counted.”

Terius swallowed his next breath, forced himself to pause, rather than let himself shout in the echoing hall. He preferred to hear his voice bite rather than brawl anyway. “It’s still so small a kindness that it almost comes out as an insult.”

Ryden raised one eyebrow. “How is that?”

“Acting like that was any gift at all, like three more days in confinement would even matter to her,” Terius snapped.

Ryden glanced at the floor for half a breath. “What did you want me to do? Forgive the fine? Does the money matter to her?”

“The mark in her record matters to her!” Terius shook his head in disbelief. “Three marks like that, and any infraction afterward could kick her off the island. She would never be allowed to come back. I think being able to stay here is the only thing that matters to her.”

“She knew what she was risking when she walked down that street,” Ryden returned. He met Terius’ eye and dared him to say otherwise.

Terius glanced at the wall and shook his head. “You didn’t have to convict her.”

“Why not?” Ryden asked. “Because I know her? Tell me the fairness in that.”

“Because you know she’s not dangerous,” Terius said. “Your fairness is going to give one mark, two marks, three… and then what happens if when that Clanless girl with three black marks against her comes back to these halls you’re not her judge?”

“And what if I am?” Ryden asked. “And what if you are? You don’t stand behind this chair for entertainment.”

Terius swallowed hard and stared at him, trying to find anything that made this less than an obvious answer. “I would release her,” he murmured.

“All of them?” Ryden asked.

Pulling back, Terius looked at him doubtfully.

“You would release anyone who broke the law for the sake of their own ease?” Ryden asked. He raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“That’s not what Jaera did,” Terius said.

“That is what Jaera did,” Ryden said. “She decided to risk a full week’s imprisonment on the chance that she could save a half hour’s walk. That was her choice. And because I know her, I hate that she made it.”

“Then why can’t you–” Terius began.

“Because,” Ryden said. “It’s a law that I agree with. The Clanless don’t belong in the Court of Lords after what most of them have done.

“I’ve thought a thousand times about the all the things that should have exceptions for foundlings written into their codes of order since I met Jaera, but how would we ever prove who was a foundling and who wasn’t? Clanless hop from one island to another, one Clan to another. Without every clan’s cooperation, we’d never keep the records straight. Without demanding that the Clanless declare themselves with signed and sealed papers in every port they step into, we would never know for certain. And how could we ask that of them on top of everything else? How would that be fair?”

It wouldn’t be. Cargo was marked that way. Those papers would be heavier than chains in Jaera’s hands. Terius hated that he knew that.

“Did you think I did this without thinking?” Ryden asked.

Terius shook his head, first at his father, then at himself. He glanced at the carved chair where his father sat. The wood of the armrests gleamed from use and polish.

“I’m going to hate sitting there,” Terius said. It wasn’t the winning last statement that he wanted, but it was all he had.

“The ones who say they love it, always worry me,” Ryden murmured.

He spoke so lightly, the hall didn’t echo his voice and the quiet settled in between them.

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